Have boots will travel has long been an accepted fact of life as far as football stars are concerned, the reality of the game, particularly in the modern era, dictating that professional players must be prepared to up roots and move on a regular basis.
Transfers are, of course, the currency of football, fans eager to know who is coming and going at clubs the length and breadth of the country, the introduction of summer and winter “windows” producing a frenzy of speculation as each approaches.
As always, most deals remain between clubs within the British Isles, although a player moving abroad, which once provoked huge interest – such as Hibs’ Joe Baker switching to Italian outfit Torino – has become more commonplace.
Baker may have been seen as something of a pioneer away back in the 1960s, but since then many Scottish players have taken a chance on moving abroad: think of Eric Black moving to French club Metz; Murdo MacLeod and Paul Lambert to Dortmund; John Collins going to Monaco; Scott Booth to Holland, while Craig Brewster and Steven Tweed tried their luck in Greece.
Australia and the United States have also proved attractive, destinations once seen as providing the opportunity for a veteran player to wind down his career now appealing to stars in their prime, as evidenced by Liam Miller’s summer switch to Perth Glory.
Garry O’Connor had a brief spell in Russia – where Celtic’s Aiden McGeady now plies his trade – and lately Turkey has become fashionable, with Michael Stewart, Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd heading east with varying degrees of success.
Today, however, Scottish players can be found in countries even they probably never believed they’d find themselves, turning out for clubs few on this side of the globe would have heard of in lands probably still considered over here as footballing backwaters.
The fact that former Hibs trio Derek Riordan, Graeme Smith and Alan Gow are now starring in China, Azerbaijan and India is, claimed players’ union official Stuart Lovell, a reflection of the wider financial problems facing us all. Like every other business football is not immune to the economic woes, most clubs reacting by trimming squads and seeking to reduce wages, the upshot being that more players are chasing fewer jobs which offer less money.
The former Hibs and Livingston star said: “Football has always been a case of have boots will travel. When I left Reading to move up here I’d played 250 first team games, I had a pretty good CV and I had a number of options.”
Those choices, he admitted, were all in Britain but he argues his situation was somewhat different to that facing ex-Hibs goalkeeper Smith when he opted to join Gabala, the team managed by former Arsenal skipper Tony Adams, in Azerbaijan.
He said: “Graeme hadn’t had a lot of games, he was competing with two other goalkeepers none of whom, I think, could consider themselves the No. 1. He couldn’t say he’d been playing regular first team football, week in, week out. It’s a situation a lot of players find themselves in. It’s all very well convincing yourself that you have something to offer but you cannot pay yourself, you need to convince someone to offer you a contract. But clubs are trimming their squads year-on-year.
“Some may think it’s a good thing to force them to play young players and hopefully we’ll get some good players coming through. Players accept that once you are over 30 it’s more difficult to get a good contract, you take what you are given and get on with it.
“But the players mentioned are nowhere near that and are still struggling so you have to cast the net far and wide.”
Lovell has numerous anecdotes to underline the financial gulf which now separates Scotland from England, citing managers seeking work down south finding the clubs they are speaking to pay wages which are considerably higher than those in the SPL, or a First Division boss offering a player far less than half of what he’d been on elsewhere and having him accept it within half an hour.
As usual, there has been a migration of players to England, many causing eyebrows to be raised when their destination is discovered to be a lower league side – but it is the moves to places such as China, Azerbaijan and India which, Lovell, PFA Scotland’s player liaison officer, claims has caused the biggest stir.
He pointed out that unlike in the past when Scottish players moved to big, well-known foreign clubs, today’s emigrants have joined lesser-known outfits. He said: “It is quite alarming to see guys leave and go abroad to far-flung parts of the world. They’d have thought they’d be able to find a contract without too much trouble but it’s an indication of where we are.”
But have Riordan, with Chinese side Shaanxi Chanba, Gow, with Kingfisher East Bengal in Kolkata, and Smith moved through desperation or by having shown a more open mind in terms of where they are willing to play?
“A bit of both, I suppose,” said Lovell. “I’d have to commend them for at least being open-minded and brave enough. But the bottom line, I would argue, is that if they’d had options in the United Kingdom would they have gone? I would suggest not.”
Whether the trickle of players willing to try something out of the ordinary increases only time will tell, with Lovell believing the experiences of Riordan, Gow and Smith will have a bearing. “I think what it will come down to is the horror stories – or not – as the case might be.”
While an exotic destination may seem attractive, Lovell, pictured right playing in Ian Murray’s testimonial recently, insisted players contemplating such a move had much to consider, not least the different environment, culture, local customs and language barriers.
He said: “Like a lot of Hibs fans I was quite taken aback when I initially heard about Derek going to China. I probably had the same reaction as most, how would he deal with the culture change, could he cope with it?
“Then there’s the standard of football he’s gone to, what’s it like? But I think players do a lot more homework about clubs they are thinking about going to. We always hear about clubs doing their homework on potential signings, but now players do their checks on the clubs interested in them.
“You often see players going abroad but returning saying they could not settle. Some are, of course, home birds by nature and don’t venture far but others flourish. I think in general British players tend to knuckle down, they have a pretty good work ethic and fit in.”
A change of environment, coping with local customs and culture, not to mention diet, apart, Lovell insisted that PFA Scotland’s experience of players moving abroad suggests there were many other possible pitfalls to be taken into consideration. He added: “You need to make sure you check things very carefully. Just think of what you go through planning a couple of weeks’ holiday and remember you aren’t just away for a fortnight.
“Are you going to be paid in the local currency or in sterling or dollars, will your money go into a bank in that country or back here, what about tax, what happens if you are out injured or if there’s a change of manager, what about accommodation and so on. There are so many things you need to consider.
“It will, though, be interesting to hear from these guys when they come back and to learn of their experiences. If it goes well for them then it might encourage others to think about giving it a try.”